I have just experienced the anticipation, excitement and fascination equivalence of a few Christmas mornings, a major birthday, and discovering the VIctoria’s Secret catalog, all rolled into one. If you’ve never believed “book lingerie” could be used in a sentence, read on about my experience unboxing a hand-bound, hand-finished copy of Cory Doctorow’s With A Little Help.
Advertisement and diversion: If you can spent close to $300 on a book, and you look at it as something you’ll treasure and share and show off the way you would a lithograph or small scultpure or something your kids made you for your 40th birthday, buy a copy for yourself. I once spent more than $200 on a one-of-an-edition-of-ten hockey card because it captured a moment in time that I cherish. I justified that expense ex post facto through my interpretation of Cory’s story Craphound, used again to rationalize spending fifteen times the street price for a book, because it’s a unique member of a small set.
All of the pictures are clickable for full-size, graphic detail images, if you’re into book packaging porn.
I’ve been following Cory’s decision tree about this book, and his desire to dabble in self-publishing, with more than usual interest. Granted, I’m a huge fan-boy (for all senses of “huge”), and I’ve been looking at self-publishing everything from short stories that consumed this summer’s writing cycles to the first issue of the Amphibimen Comics. The back story only generated further and deeper interest in the front story, brought to its climax when I picked up the following box (one mailing day before Christmas) at the post office:
The box is hand-cut, hand-lettered and bears some re-used and re-purposed signs of Cory’s previous stints with the EFF. Peeking through the open end cap of the outer box I spied the burlap coffee sack that wrapped my treasure. This is high-end book lingerie – sneaking a glimpse of what lies inside only builds anticipation for unwrapping it further. I’m a boy for all senses of boy, too.
My first thought, like any kid with a wrapped present in hand, was to tear open the packaging. However, the burlap sack is just wonderful. “Fondled” is too strong; I slowly unrolled the sack ensconcing my book, stopping to take pictures and note the defects in the burlap, the dyes and paints announcing its provenance, and to wipe up the floatsam left behind on my desk. I’ll never look at Amazon’s shrink wrap or packing peanuts with only minor disdain again. This was a labor of love. I saved the burlap sack for reasons that will (I hope) become clear when we finally move out of this house and I have to clean up my office.
What’s inside? Goodness, oh goodness. And a surprise.
Extracted from its cross-Atlantic trip marsupial love-wrap was one tissue-wrapped book, sealed with stickers that themselves tell a story. The Charles Darwin posse sticker is a direct Shep Fairey tribute (Fairey being the genius behind, or in front of, “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” and the Obama “Hope” poster). The other two bits of sealing wax are an Alcatraz inmate warning sign and Cory’s waiver of bogus agreements. Maybe I was too early in the morning coffee cycle, but the dichotomy struck me as a bit of performance art: Science, fair use, over-regulation and over-zealousness. You figure out which adjectives go with which stickers. Or maybe I was reading too much into it before reading any of it.
Revealed beneath layers of tissue: Randall Munroe’s xkcd impression of Cory, having just landed his high-altitude blogging platform balloon. Rip, rip, tear, tear, enough of being gentle and caressing.
I don’t know if my edition was hand-selected (Snowman = 8 = Willie Stargell = long standing sports identity) or just serendipity. It is mine, boldly marked where no other edition can go. The spine embossing is deep. When you pick the book up, that negative space creates a sense of heft and gravitas. The only feeling that comes close is gently sliding a book from an old library shelf, opening it to find it’s a hundred year old first edition, then closing it to think for a moment about the others who might have held that same spine before you. That feeling is what led me to spend most of the winter months of my Princeton junior year in the Colonial Club library, having discovered the collection of historical books along the south windows. Some people enjoy the first sip of a red wine, or the feel of a new leather bag; I get equivalent sensory stimulation from a well-bound book.
The final surprise awaits inside the front and back covers. Cory promised a bit of “paper ephemera”; things that his friends had donated to him from their private or professional lives that he hand-glued into each copy. I hit the Benjamin Rosenbaum jackpot; notes from a talk at WisCon (the leading feminist literature con) and an uncorrected proof page from The Ant King (which, of course, I had to buy immediately so I can make the physical association). Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory collaborated on True Names, their re-interpreted tribute to the same-titled Vernor Vinge work.
There it is – unwrapped, exposed, ready to be displayed with pride, taken down at regular intervals to be shown off to family and friends, or just held at the end of a long day when a good book literally (in every sense) balances out everything else. I’m going to read the book, but I’ve ordered the paperback print-on-demand lulu.com edition for that purpose. As the parodied Jewish aunts say, while stuffing the occasional danish into their handbags, “this one is for later.”
One day my grandchildren will look at this hand-made work of art and literature, staring at the black storage device embedded in the cover with the same incredulity with which my kids regard 8-track tapes. One of those two book formats will survive into the next generation of people and technology, and I consider myself lucky to have an example rich in the detail that turns ephemera into someone else’s personal history with a touch of nostalgia.